Technology Is Watching The Watchers

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

Pointing to the signed and framed Terrapin jersey in his office and the 2002 NCAA collectible ball in the corner, Ermis Sfakiyanudis described the joy that is March Madness -- the desperate hope and thrill that hangs on every shot.

Then he leaned back in his chair, clicked on his mouse and talked about the evils.

Millions of workers poring over brackets rather than spreadsheets. Office computers used for streaming the day's big game instead of reviewing the boss's latest memo. An estimated $1.2 billion lost in productivity across the country.

That's where businesses like his come in, he said. Using software his company developed -- and has sold to two other companies -- he pulled up reports showing the names of every worker in his office, the Web sites they visited that day and total minutes they spent Web surfing.

"Amazing, isn't it?" he asked.

Scary is another word that comes to mind. Before the NCAA tournament even began this week, a flood of news releases poured out from the technological cottage industry that has sprung up around the perennial hoop fever.

On one side are the cellphone alerts, prediction programs, online office pools and streaming video that keep fans increasingly plugged in.

On the other side are the IT companies hawking tools to crack down on workers who spend their day updating pool charts and basking in the highlight reel. Between the two sides lies this question: Is March Madness in the office just a bit of fun or behavior deserving of reprimand?

At eTelemetry, Sfakiyanudis's company in Annapolis, programmers jokingly call themselves "the Evil Empire" because of their product's killjoy features. Co-founder Alan Schunemann's office has a Mr. Potato Head in a Darth Vader helmet. Light sabers lie on top of every worker's cubicle.

"It's a joke," Schunemann said, "but it's also something we're conscious of. In the end, I don't think it's a mean thing we're doing. Companies have a legitimate concern about what their employees are doing."

The company launched the technology, a device called Metron, last year just months after CBS began streaming games live over the Internet. The device, priced at $15,000, is a thin black box with a red blinking light on its face, modeled on the evil Cylon robots from "Battlestar Galactica." It monitors Internet traffic going to a company's regular computer servers.

Developer Bill Byrd calls himself the Jiminy Cricket of the company (its conscience). On his desk he keeps action figures of Han Solo and Chewbacca -- "Star Wars" good guys -- as well as a toy button that plays the ominous music of the dark side's evil emperor when you press it. He does so in meetings when ideas for monitoring workers get a little too sinister.

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